Tuesday, July 8, 2014

In Klungkung, One Salt Farmer Prevails

Artisanal salt farming is a dying trade in Bali. The Indonesian government has an incentive program to subsidise local salt farming in an effort to attract and retain this trade. Is it working? Is this primitive and labour intensive method of producing salt worth saving?

The salt farm we visited was near Goa Lawah (Bat Cave) in Klungkung -- there are two other traditional salt farming locations in Bali, in a Kusamba fishing village and at Hotel Uyah in Amed. The entrance leading to the Goa Lawah salt farm was marked by a tiny and crude wooden sign announcing “NATURAL SALT MAKER”, easily missed if not for our observant driver.

But found it we did. As we entered the farm, we were greeted by the salty air and the vast vista of the horizon where the blue sky meets the Bali Sea. The farm itself is a mom and pop operation, it’s operated by a farmer who learned solar salt farming in his adolescence at his father's farm. When he was of age and skill, he bought a patch of land by the sea and started his own salt farm, where he continued the traditional practices using natural materials.

The process started with the hauling of salt water from the deep blue sea using a handmade carrying pole made from a rattan yoke and two tarpaulin containers at its ends. The pregnant containers of seawater bobbed up and down as the farmer trudged swiftly towards his farm with nary a drop to spill. The seawater was carried to a patch of black volcanic sand, reserved solely for evaporating the seawater. He rocked the containers simultaneously with a back and forth motion, spraying their contents onto the earth. In doing so, the seawater was absorbed by the sand and filtered by it at the same time.

A sunny, cloudless day is essential in solar salt farming. It’s the other main energy source besides manpower. The sun dries the seawater drenched volcanic sand, evaporating the liquid and leaving salt minerals behind. To hasten the evaporation process, the farmer’s wife ran a rake through the sand exposing the damp lower layer.

The process of pouring water onto sand, raking and drying them was repeated a few times before the resulting salt-infused sand was scraped and collected. Inside a humble draughty hut was where the purification process starts. The salty sand was poured into a large wooden container and mixed in with the right amount of Bali Sea water, not too much. The seawater re-dissolved the salt contained within the sand to produce a concentrated NaCl brine, essentially separating and settling the impurity (sand and other bits) to the bottom. Subsequently the brine was channelled via a bamboo pipe into its final resting place: troughs made of coconut tree trunks.

While the farmer was busy filling the coconut troughs, the farmer's wife and I got into talking about the next generation of salt farmers. She confided that traditional salt making is a back-breaking work, something kids these days wouldn't want to do. She was grateful enough their oldest has a job in the city as a security guard and the young one is a diligent high school student.

The farmer finished filling up the trough with salty water. The farmer explained the drying troughs were made of the top part of coconut trees as their diameter is smaller nearer the top. Larger troughs made of the bottom part of the tree were used as containers in the purification process. Coconut tree trunks were chosen because of its abundance, but also because they’re less porous than the also ubiquitous tropical palm trees.

The coconut troughs containing the brine were lifted and lined up at a plot outside the hut to receive a further dosage of heating from the sun. It was now the sun's job to naturally evaporate the brine's water content. The slowly re-crystallised salt were then delicately skimmed and piled into woven bamboo buckets to drain and dry. The result was this coarse unrefined salt with irregularly shaped and sized grains, dissimilar to what you'd normally get with factory produced salt.

We bought a small plastic bag of this salt, with a price that was next to nothing, certainly not enough to offset the hard work and care put into it. We were so embarrassed paying the asking price, we gave him a bit more. To us the wide smiles and patience the husband and wife team had throughout their demonstration were worth a hundred times more than simply a bag of salt.

The government salt farm incentive program PUGAR (Program Pengingkatan Usaha Garam Rakyat) is in its third year of existence and this year it has finally managed to accumulate enough stockpile to satisfy the country’s total demand of salt for food consumption -- 1.5 million tonnes annually. This program delivers subsidies to 7 major producing locations -- places with climates most conducive for salt farming -- and 33 locations for minor production. Alas Bali is not among one of these locations. (It’s worth noting the program doesn’t subsidise salt production for industrial purposes -- Indonesia imports over 600 thousand tonnes of industrial salt annually.)

Fortunately for our Goa Lawah salt farmer, Bali is big on tourism. Ever since more and more tourists knew about his farm, he is making a small income from the tips they gave from being charmed by his earnestness (and utter lack of commercialism, I might add.)

Goa Lawah Salt Farm
Jalan Raya Goa Lawah
Klungkung BALI
location on google maps

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